Tuesday, March 15, 2016

The Death of Caesar: The Story of History's Most Famous Assassination, by Barry Strauss

This week I'm talking about The Death of Caesar, by Barry Strauss, which seeks to explore the assassination of Gaius Julius Caesar by a group of senators on 15 March 44 BCE. As Strauss himself says, thanks to William Shakespeare Caesar's assassination is one of the most famous in history, perhaps only more recently eclipsed by the sheer amount of morbid curiosity surrounding John F. Kennedy's assassination in 1963. In an event with so much drama surrounding it, it can be extremely difficult getting towards the truth of the matter. Strauss's attempt is to sift through the various sources, which are honestly fairly limited, and also attempts to put the assassination of Caesar within the proper context of the times. However, I feel like Strauss's efforts are rather disorganized and fall somewhat short as a result.

The biggest challenge for any modern historian is figuring out what exactly happened. The very absolute basics are not disputed. Gaius Julius Caesar was assassinated by a group of senators within Pompey's senate house, and the leaders of this plot included Brutus, Cassius, and Decimus who were all connected by various family ties. These senators then were involved in a war with Marcus Antonius (Marc Antony) and Octavian (later Caesar Augustus), which they lost and Marcus Antonius and Octavian divided the empire between them. Beyond these very basic details it becomes increasingly hazy and difficult to understand.

The precise motivations of Brutus, Cassius, and Decimus, what they hoped to accomplish, how exactly Caesar died, and many other details are lost in the fog of classical history. Historians during the era were often not terribly concerned with what was accurate so much as what made a good story and their bias, whether pro- or anti-Caesar is usually very explicit. (In fact the idea of unbiased historiography is a fairly new one, and still a thorny issue.) And of course, many of the surviving reports we have are second hand sources. Cicero, who was present in the senate chamber on that fateful day, wrote only a very brief description. Most of the other writers, such as Plutarch, were writing well after the event and drawing on sources which have since been lost to us. So ultimately any historical interpretation has to be taken with a grain of salt.

Despite this difficulty, Strauss goes to great lengths working to incorporate numerous sources to provide necessary context to explain the associated context but at the same time I feel it is incomplete. Caesar's career (which I'm ashamed to admit I only know the most general details about) is mentioned very briefly and how it may have fueled Caesar's ambitions. But the description is extremely brief and I feel like to provide a better understanding the book may have been better served by a more in-depth exploration of Caesar's life and how he eventually became dictator for life, rather than starting with him already declared dictator. Certainly considering the sheer number of people involved it would be unrealistic to go into detail about everyone's life, but Caesar is the focus of the narrative. Strauss also incorporates some details for further context, but I thought there were still major gaps which only I was able to fill in because of my own knowledge of Roman history. (As rusty as I'll admit it is. Thanks, Sister Georgia!) Obviously there were probably constraints on overall length of the book and including more detail would have made the book go even longer, but I feel like it would have helped make the book feel more cohesive.

I do also find myself disagreeing with the final conclusion of Strauss, that Caesar's assassination ended up being a warning to would-be dictators everywhere and in a way it helped save the Roman Republic for a little bit longer. On the first hand, the most famous assassination which referenced Julius Caesar was John Wilkes Booth's assassination of Abraham Lincoln in 1865, shouting sic semper tyrannus as he fled the theater. Lincoln, however, was a democratically elected leader and although taking several wartime measures to crush the rebellion could hardly be called a tyrant.

Claiming that Augustus's adoption of the title princeps or ''first citizen'' and willingness to work through the senate was a continuation of the Republic with a limited monarchy is hardly a strong example as well. The Republic had already been dominated by strong men such as Marius, Sulla, and Pompey before Caesar with control of military power being the true determinator. Although Strauss doesn't claim it overtly, there's definitely the suggestion that the assassination of Caesar helped keep the spark of government by consent alive in Europe. I find this also rather weak because while the American Founding Fathers may have been inspired by Greek and Roman ideals, being avid readers of the classics, there was also a separate strong tradition of government by consent in England, independent of any Roman tradition and which heavily inspired American systems of government.

Overall I think this book is okay, but a little inadequate. Strauss provides some context, but just simply not enough to my liking to give a full understanding of the assassination of Caesar and why it's such a tipping point in Roman history.

- Kalpar

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